Over 17,000 hectares in Colombia destroyed by forest fires in hottest January for decades

Forest fires have destroyed more than 17,000 hectares in Colombia since November, the authorities said, as the country faces its hottest January in decades.

More than 340 fires have been recorded in that period, spurred by prolonged drought, record heat, and the El Nino weather phenomenon, Environment Minister Susana Muhamad said on Friday, adding that 26 fires were still blazing.

Colombia has been battling several fires near the capital since Monday, including some in the mountains overlooking Bogota, and authorities have advised residents living close to burnt areas to avoid going outside because of the poor air quality.

“Today, we have a fire in the Nevada del Cocuy,” a natural park with snow-capped peaks about 250km (155 miles) northeast of Bogota, Muhamad told a press conference.

She added that the flames were at a “quite high” point in the park, so a helicopter had been deployed to assess the situation.

One of the fires is burning about 900 metres from Bogota’s eastern El Paraiso neighbourhood.

Some residents affected by the smoke were being treated, the Colombian Red Cross in Bogota wrote on social media platform X, alongside photos of emergency workers helping a man wearing a face mask.

President Gustavo Petro this week declared a natural disaster, allowing funds to be diverted from other budget items towards containing the blazes, and appealed for international aid.

Bogota’s El Dorado international airport returned to normal operations on Friday after restrictions the previous day affected 138 flights.

This month is shaping up to be the hottest January in 30 years, according to Ghisliane Echeverry, director of the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies in Colombia.

Echeverry warned that February could see even higher temperatures, and only in March will rains help to “mitigate” the consequences of the extreme heat.

Authorities are investigating whether arsonists are causing some of the fires, and police have arrested 26 people for “fire-related offences”.

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